The year was 1989. Three years prior, Walt Disney’s 1946 feature Song of the South was released for the last time in theaters for its fortieth anniversary. In the meantime, on the morning of July 17th, Walt Disney Imagineering unveiled a new ride erected in the Bear Country section, called Splash Mountain. While Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear had been staples of the animated feature canon for over forty years, their presence was limited. However, the closure of Tomorrowland’s America Sings attraction meant reutilizing various animatronics of animals and was a HUGE time and money saver, and further incentivized the use of anthropomorphic animals in a new ride. Thus, taking advantage of the rural American setting, the new inhabitants next to Country Bear Jamboree were the brainchildren of the fictional Uncle Remus. And its name changed from Zip-a-Dee-River Run to Splash Mountain…solely because Michael Eisner wanted to promote their newest movie Splash. Which was about a mermaid. And had eff-all to do with Br’er Rabbit, Song of the South, or anything in Bear Country.
As time went on, two more Splash Mountains were constructed in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, both in 1992. The ride became a beloved staple of the park, rounding out the trinity with Space and Big Thunder Mountains. The movie’s signature song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” stayed as an enduring tune beloved by disney fans of all ages. Br’er Rabbit and pals continued, though to a lesser degree, to skirt the fringes of consciousness, often either promoting the famous ride or in massive collages with other fellow Disney characters. Fans in this VHS era waited for the day that the movie would be finally be a part of their movie collection. I mean, they were selling them in Canada, Europe, and Japan, so it was only a matter of time before that movie idolizing nostalgic Americana from Walt’s time would be a part of our collections, right?
By the end of 2001, all home media copies were discontinued and the movie hadn’t been seen by American audiences in fifteen years. The DVD market slowly overtook the VHS business and as Disney pumped out Disney Vault remastered releases of their staples, it became increasingly obvious that Song of the South was getting its own home media release a week after *Cough cough cough!*. Eisner and later Iger began fielding questions at shareholder meetings about the status of the movie, which was often met “No/not right now/We’ll see”‘s. It was soon transparent: Disney was now embarrassed of Song of the South. They had an Academy Award-winning song and a hugely successful thrill ride at the parks based on the movie, ergo, they were forced to acknowledge it in junkets and pamphlets regarding them, plus the occasional reference to it in reference books and documentaries, but that was it.
On the morning of June 25th, after a couple of weeks of gossip on social media, Disney confirmed that the rumors were true: Amid the chaotic racial strife of the Black Lives Matter movement, Disney announced plans to renovate the beloved Splash Mountain to be re-themed after 2009’s The Princess and the Frog.
A Brief History of Disney Ride Closures
During the first couple decades of Disneyland, rides, shows, and stores circulated in and out of the park with frequent regularity. Few if any truly cared about the Wizard of Bras, the Phantom Boats, Circus World, Monsanto House of the Future, or Holiday Land. A large part of this was owed to the relatively short time the park had been around, so not many people had an opportunity to get real choked up when they closed down for something bigger and better.
As time wore on, Disney had to adapt, and that often meant sticking with what worked and abandoning what didn’t. But age breeds nostalgia and sentimentality. And as such, the longer an attraction sticks around, the more likely it becomes an object of fond memories, even if it is, objectively, a piece of crap. How many terrible Saturday morning cartoons that double as toy advertisements become treasured programming? How many hyper-processed, sugary cereals with zero nutritional value become treasured breakfasts of years gone by? The list goes on.
Once the nineties came, Disneyland had been around for 35 years, and its Florida counterpart barely 20. That’s a fair amount of time in which thousands, nay, millions of patrons have ridden, seen, shopped, played, and eaten at the parks since they were kids and grew up into adults desperate to recapture the halcyon days of youth. Several rides had come and gone since then, but then the internet came.
Public documentation endured as Disney happily shared pictures, videos, and information about its attractions for publicity, which increased emotional appeal even further. Before long, while the business of closing attractions like World of Motion, Horizons, Skyway, Journey Into Imagination, Discovery Island, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, River Country, and Wonders of Life continued on as usual, people had greater accessibility to internet communication, sharing memories and experiences, which increased inflamed, passionate reactions. And watching sub-par replacements like The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management, Stitch’s Great Escape, Journey Into Your Imagination (Or, in the cases of River Country, Discovery Island, Rocket Rods, and Wonders of Life, literally nothing!), park guests became cynical of change. Sure, sometime an upgrade was made, but considering late-stage Eisner (2000-2005) was considered a cheapskate who rarely invested money beyond the bare minimum, there was reason many had little faith in positive changes.
Worse still. Disney brought this on themselves in their marketing campaign. Not just showcasing these great attractions up until the day they’re considered bulldozable, but one key word seen in all their marketing:
See that key word there? Memories.
Disney marketing knows full well the power of nostalgia. It’s why (And please forgive my gender stereotyping here) a man in a mid-life crisis will max a credit card on a flashy new convertible, a woman will pay through the nose in makeup and plastic surgery, and why kids who visited Walt Disney World and Disneyland when they were eight will spend similarly exorbitant prices just to go back. There’s only one problem: half of those rides and shows are now gone.
Of course, that was by design. Walt wanted change because he thought a static park would cause people to get bored and never bother to come back. A tinkerer by nature, Walt loved the idea of constantly upgrading (Or “plussing” as he called it) Disneyland. But Walt hadn’t counted on the power of legacy: that the older something gets, the more the public reveres and respects it by virtue of age. And the kids who loved the rides when they were kids soon found themselves grimacing at the thought of another ride, however of good quality, usurping their childhood in favor of the next generation. Like, say, a ride based on a C-tier cartoon from the forties’ package era that literally took riders to Hell that would be replaced by Disney’s second-most popular franchise after Mickey Mouse that hadn’t received a ride yet…
In 1997, Walt Disney World announced their plans to close Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and replace it with The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. It immediately sparked one of the very first online protests and what ensued was a yearlong yet ultimately fruitless campaign to save the attraction. “Toad-ins” were held at the parks, petitions were filled, and homemade t-shirts were made, all to demand Disney keep the attraction from going away. Over twenty years later, Winnie the Pooh remains one of Fantasyland’s most popular rides and Mr. Toad is idolized as a classic ride of yesteryear, often unknown to younger patrons. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride remains in Disneyland to this day, though Winnie the Pooh did replace the Country Bear Jamboree in Critter Country.
Thanks to social media, the demand to keep stuff the way it is has mobilized and condensed demand while the inexorable march of time has intensified passions. Now, everytime Disney proudly announces the closure and replacement of an attraction, Disney gets a barrage of outrage and vitriol from the public, no matter the intentions or the quality of the replacement. Fans will argue legacy versus evolution. Tradition versus progress. Emotion versus capitalism. Other notable controversial changes through the ages include:
The changes of Journey into Imagination (1999-2001)…
Horizons to Mission: Space (1999-2003)…
Maelstrom to Frozen Ever After (2014-2016)…
The Great Movie Ride to Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (2017-2020)…
Removing the bride auction scene on Pirates of the Caribbean. (2017-2018)
Any time a known IP is replacing an Epcot attraction. (1995-present)…
It’s a tale as old as time. Don’t change the Old Thing because it means nostalgia, versus change into New Thing because it means adaptability, popularity, and profits.
Race at the Disney parks.
Walt loved the idea of having a constantly evolving product he could fix and adjust over time. Once movies were released, they are virtual time capsules of their release dates. That means jokes and cultural depictions that were okay with white audiences then are left for future generations to squirm at, however unintentional. So today, we get Peter Pan‘s “What Makes the Red Man Red?”, but hey, know of Indian Village in Frontierland? No, you probably don’t.
The Indian Village was a mainstay of the park from 1955 to 1972. It was a genuine attempt to depict native american culture and to give them a platform to share their heritage, however, charging admission to see real, live Indians beside the Mike Fink Keelboats, where the bathrooms nearby were labeled “braves” and “squaws” today might be seen as a wee bit insensitive. Never mind the whole time, a burning cabin across the way on Tom Sawyer Island featured a tableau of a burning cabin, with a narration from the railroad informing us the settler – arrow in back – was felled by one of those “unfriendly” Indians.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen was a restaurant from 1955 to 1970 that even had Aunt Jemima herself greeting people. Even today, the World-Famous Jungle Cruise still features jokes about pygmies in Africa, the headhunters doing war dances and attacks, and Trader Sam, the beloved witch doctor and cannibal. The reductive cultural stereotyping of the children in It’s a Small World. The exaggerated accents of Michael, José, Fritz, and Pierre in the Enchanted Tiki Room, which already oversimplified the Polynesian culture, say nothing of the Polynesian Resort a lake away. Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions. Whether or not you find any of these offensive is far removed from the point, as they are simply portrayals of non-American culture as part of the intriguing appeal. Because admission is charged, it means capitalism and exploitation, and it raises ethical quandaries. Because it’s so well ingrained in our popular consciousness, it raises moral questions about what values we’re passing onto our children, even the most benign, ignorant aside, that’s meant to be “all in good fun”.
Okay, let’s talk about that movie…
Song of the South was released in 1946, and is set in the Reconstruction era of Georgia, on a plantation owned by a white woman of considerable wealth. All the people who live near her are black manual laborers living in shacks, though it’s far from clear whom they work for or why. The African-Americans in the movie speak with broad eubonics and exaggerated dialects, and are subservient, at least in attitude, to the affluent white people. The stories of Br’er Rabbit were appropriated by a white journalist who published the them. Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempy are firmly ingrained in Uncle Tom and Mammy archetypes. The famous Tar Baby is a racial slur. All of these are objective facts about the movie.
I, personally, like the movie. Yeah, it’s deeply problematic. But I like James Baskett’s portrayal of Uncle Remus, who plays the archetype with such warmth and heart that it’s easy to forget it’s a racist caricature. The man had enough range to play the Santa Claus-esque Uncle Remus as well as the hyperactive, egotistical Br’er Fox and in the Laughin’ Place sequence, take over for Johnny Lee as Br’er Rabbit. The animated characters themselves are highly enjoyable, almost Looney Tunes in their comedy. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not like people who have a problem with this movie don’t have their reasons. Just try watching this movie and try not to squirm when you hear Uncle Remus say things like, “Lawzy me, I ‘clare t’be gracious!”
Of course, when you compare it to similar scenarios, like Dumbo or Peter Pan, Song of the South has much less to offer. Both films have fantastic locales, iconic imagery, gorgeous animation, and so much more redeemable facets where you’re completely forgiven if you hardly thought about the injuns or the crows. But the race relations in Song of the South aren’t a bug, they’re a feature. You can’t ignore the racial politics are front and center.
So I would make the argument that keeping the animated characters and excusing the tar baby only promotes the best parts of the movie. Yes, they’re avoiding the Br’er Elephant in the room, but it shows you can’t throw the Br’er Baby out with the Br’er Bathwater (okay, I’m done). My point is, they are still showcasing the movies good qualities while still maintaining its legacy. Of course, that begs the question, if its source is rotten, how good can its fruit be, especially if they are avoiding the issue rather than confronting it? It’s like using a term like “gyp” (to con or rip off), when it’s clearly a dig at the Romani. Even if you have nothing against them, we can’t retroactively reapply new meaning as if its racist origin wasn’t the reason. Adversely, the swastika…
…means divinity and spirituality in India. It was even taken as a good luck charm until a certain goosestepping racist from Germany co-opted the symbol for his own nefarious, anti-semitic purposes. Germany has since taken aggressive measures to eradicate latent representations of their humiliating chapter in history, but try stopping the Hindus and Bhuddists from using it for its original purposes. So while yes, there’s an argument to be made that as pure and innocent as Splash Mountain itself is, there’s no arguing it came from deeply problematic sources. And that’s something worth considering.
I like Song of the South more than I like The Princess and the Frog, but not by much. I sure as heck am going to miss Br’er Rabbit and his buddies, and I want the characters’ legacies to endure, because as I said, they’re not bad characters, aside from their hyperbolic accents. But again, they come from a tainted source, and we’d be foolish to not acknowledge it. But instead of scrubbing them entirely, why not provide context and discussion? Actually, you know…talk about the problem? Release a documentary. Vis-à-vis Waking Sleeping Beauty, and discuss the ethical ramifications of it cultural depictions through the decades? In movies their remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and Aladdin, Disney’s gone well out of their way to strut the message of Girl Power in their movies. Admirable as it may have been, it still falls flat because A) the misogyny accusations in the original movies were in bad faith at best, B) these moments were ham fisted in so clumsily they actually detract from the movie, and C) they were usually transparently hollow.
Even today, 1992’s princess Jasmine is seen as strong, well-defined feminist icon, and one of her best lines is “I am not a prize to be won!”. In the 2019 remake, her role was needlessly amplified to her wanting to be DA FIRST-EVAR female sultan, popping everyone’s monocles, and giving her her own solo Girl Power number, “Silenced”, where she shouts to the heavens how she will not be…well, silenced…before she is shackled and as sorted off to the dungeon. We know Disney knows people who know how to write good female characters (Ironically, Linda Woolverton, who wrote another one of Disney’s best feminist films, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, also wrote 2014’s Maleficent, which turned Disney’s greatest villain into a rape allegory as “a woman scorned”), so it’s kind of shocking this was the turn they took. Just because you fluff up Nala’s role in the Lion King remake and have her voiced by Beyoncé does not make you woke, Mickey!
But race? Yeah, that’s ignored completely. Period piece movies are now doing completely colorblind casting (Not the worst offense, I’d say), but 2019’s Dumbo also retroactively refused to give Dumbo champagne, added a girl who wanted to be a scientist, and reunited Dumbo with his mother in the Peta-approved jungles of Africa. While few had issues with any of those corrections in the 1941 original, guess what part they cropped out entirely?
“Racism? What racism? Look, we got people of all races and creeds mingling in 1919 like Remember the Titans never existed! What’s Remember the Titans? I don’t know, I don’t see color! I mean, all lives matter, amirite? I guess because you brought up race, that makes you the racist one!”
I applaud Disney still putting OG Dumbo, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, et al uncut with postings on Disney+ about “outdated cultural depictions”, but it’s an incremental measure at best. Racism did exist, and we know Disney can discuss this in a realistic way!
So where do I stand on the issue of removing Song of the South Splash Mountain for yet-unnamed Tiana’s Mardi Gras Mountain?
Pros for change:
1. Removing references to a controversial film.
2. Giving Princess and the Frog a well-deserved attraction.
3. The theme works in Disneyland next to New Orleans Square.
4. The ride system is going to be exactly the same.
Cons for change:
1. Shows Disney’s agenda in that they would rather dismiss and ignore Song of the South and its racial ramifications rather than confront and discuss them.
2. No more Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, or Br’er Bear, ergo, even fewer merchandise of the characters. (Unless you want to pay through the nose from all those a**holes who bought up all the merch to exploit your feels because of this.)
3. The theming may be jarring next to Walt Disney World’s Big Thunder Mountain in Frontierland (Then again, Georgia is even less of the aforementioned “frontier”)
So…I’m okay with it. Sure, I’ll miss the original, but this is a change I don’t think “ruins” or “destroys” anything, let alone any gripes we have about “political correctness” or “cancel culture”. It’s progress and adaptability. It’s about making strides to be more cognizant of the culture we share and represent. I like this change and while I can’t tell anyone what to think, I think the discussion is appropriate. And I’m happy to do so.
Y’all come back now, y’hear?